Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"I've been out walking / I don't do too much talking these days"


It feels almost like cheating to include this moment among my favorites scenes as it has already appeared on countless lists of great musical moments, but as it is the scene that motivated this feature, it cannot be denied. This moment between Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) is where the film really seems to begin. Great performance from Gene Hackman aside, the tenderness between these star-crossed siblings is what really resonates for me.

At this point in the film we have already met Margot, and yet as she stands in the breeze and silence after getting off that bus, we are aware that we had not truly seen her until this moment with the hardness of her face melting, her eyes alight. The editing matching Nico's "These Days" with that fantastic and hopeful slow-motion walk to Richie (whose kind eyes are burning bright behind his many layers) feels deliberately open, like a breath of fresh air, if I may be so trite. It is simple and brief, but tells us everything we need to know about these characters, expresses infinite sadness and hope within the lyrics of that song and Nico's soulful voice, and is filmed brightly. This is a case where slow-motion is absolutely manipulating our emotions and reading of the characters, but somehow feels like the only choice possible. A perfect marriage of song and image.

And a note about that song: when I was in college I worked at a Taco Time with a very smart, very lazy boy I found adorable. He was the only person I knew who had seen this movie and during a great discussion of its merits, he compared the child prodigies of the film to the characters in JD Salinger's many tales of the Glass family. I thought he was a genius. I shared with him my love of this scene and this song, which he of course knew was written by Jackson Brown and recorded by Nico during the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground years of the 1960's. I was hanging out at his house a few weeks later, the first flutters of a crush queasing in my stomach, when this boy, without reminder or request, got up and put "These Days" on the record player. Just because he knew I liked it. And the first real romantic love I had ever felt was cemented. It was a disastrous crush, placed on an overall unworthy recipient, but I remember it fondly, especially when I hear this song and see this movie. (Also, the final lines, "please don't confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them" absolutely gut me.)

P.S. I'm starting to notice that all my favorite scene entries (and the nominees list going on my notepad) are oriented around a song or score I really like. It will apparently always be about the music.

Monday, June 2, 2014

If You're Looking for Something Really Screwed Up...

I've been trying to read more in the last 3 months (though that has nothing to do with my absence in the blogosphere). I tend to read in spurts: 4 books one month, then nothing for 3 months. As you can imagine, I supplement heavily with film. I've been chugging along the last four weeks: Mindy Kaling's memoir/anecdotal review "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?", John Green's "Looking for Alaska" (tears), followed by John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars" (many more tears - in fact, while John Green YA fiction is exceptional and exuberant, it is full of situations causing massive waterworks. Beware.), Stephen King's "On Writing" (confession: I don't think I'm a real writer), and have just started "A Game of Thrones" (I thought I should actually read the source material if I'm going to spend every Monday morning catching up on spoilers from the previous night's episode of a show I don't even watch).

I heard that David Fincher's next project is an adaptation of the thriller "Gone Girl," written by Gillian Flynn. Fincher being a director I am generally enjoy and admire I kept an eye out for this book for about 6 months before finally stumbling across it at a Costco. (I suppose I could have gone to an actual bookstore, or you know, ordered it online or something, but these are not avenues a film addict going through a book hibernation pursues.)

Without giving too much away, our main character Nick awakens on the day of his 5th wedding anniversary to Amy; by the end of the day Amy is missing, there are signs of a struggle, and Nick is the primary suspect. That's all that can reasonably be discussed without potentially ruining your enjoyment of the book. However, Flynn captures her characters voices clearly and without restraint, there are several twists that make the experience gripping and bewildering, and I know feel really smart for recognizing that the erstwhile term learned in multiple English classes, "the unreliable narrator," is alive and kicking and makes this book all the more confusing to enjoy. Be prepared - it is graphic (or maybe explicit is the better word; characters say what they mean, they don't pussy-foot around), and some of the material is, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, fucked-up. But oh-so-worth-it.

The film adaptation stars Rosamund Pike - in a damn near perfect piece of physical casting to be sure, and Ben Affleck, Neal Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry. The casting of all these male characters had various factions of the "Gone Girl" fan base in an uproar based on particular visions of the characters that didn't seem in line. However, I had these actors in mind when reading the book and didn't notice any glaring points of subtlety that will be lost. In fact, I think these actors should turn in great performances, especially with Fincher at the helm. Also boding well for production is the fact that Flynn penned the screenplay herself.

Here is the first trailer, which captures the darkness of the book, while also playing with it's romantic dichotomy by using Elvis Costello's "She" as the music. (That's the song that played over the fluffy beginning and end of Notting Hill. My dad loooooooves it. Which means it is a pretty dorky song right there. Confession: I love it too.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Oscars!!!

It's 2:44 in the morning right now. I had to work tonight and did my best to avoid all Oscar spoilers while passing pills. I was only partially successful as several residents were watching the Academy Awards and I couldn't very well tell them to turn it off just so I wouldn't learn the terribly exciting identity of the Sound Editing winners. I had the very bad luck of always walking into a room at the exact moment someone won - never during a musical performance or staged bit. But I remained ignorant of all the big winners until I got home, slogged through 3 hours of red carpet coverage on E! (I'm so sick of watching the hosts kiss each other's asses - just show the dresses, please!) and have finally concluded the Academy Awards. I even took notes! (For a complete list of winners go here.)

The Fashion:

There was a lot of black (or dark green, gray and navy) on the red carpet tonight. Most of it was lovely, but rather uninspiring. If you have ever taken a look at my closet, or my bedroom, you know I live for color. But there was no yellow, no orange, very little red, very little light blue, no purple. I'm kind of disappointed. The other "trend" this year seems to be metallic dresses. I love this in theory, but I don't think it works well in such great quantity. The awesome thing about Taylor Swift's Grammy dress was that it was a metallic chain material that stood out compared with others. When half the red carpet is wearing a similar material, it kind of loses it's unique appeal. That said, here are my picks for best and worst of the night:

BEST: Obvious and played out, but Angelina Jolie. Yes, I just complained about the metallics trend, but damn does it work for her.  

Runner-Up: Lupita Nyong'o. Also the obvious choice, but the color is divine with her skin. Not really a big fan of the headband though.

Also loved Jared Leto's hair, classic white jacket and crimson bowtie.

WORST:  Pharrell Williams. I have accepted his obsession with the Dudley Do-Right hat, but formal tuxedo shorts are just a huge no-no.

Best Moment: Lupita Nyong'o wins Best Supporting Actress. Yes, she was pretty much the favorite. But she must have been braced for a Jennifer Lawrence upset because she just very honestly fell apart the moment they said her name. And I love that she hugged so many people before she made it to the stage; people usually feel so overwhelmed and rushed that they head straight up. I like that she took her time. And I love all the emotionally feels. Also, everyone seriously loves that girl. Possibly more than they ever loved Jennifer Lawrence. Lupita got a standing ovation!

Runner-Up: Pharrell turns the Oscar stage into the Grammys with his performance of "Happy," and gets Lupita Nyong'o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams to shimmy with him.

Best Speech: Surprisingly, Matthew McConaughey. Sure, Wooderson reference, possibly incredibly rehearsed, but felt off the cuff and intelligent and that was the first speech I've seen from him where he got really emotional talking about his family. (And props to Jared Leto for coming off far less douchey than in previous speeches. He was the only person to specifically mention the rioting in Ukraine and Venezuela right now either. Not sure if that makes him more of less of a douche. Playing to the crowd to garner adoration or honestly trouble by world events? You decide.)

Craziest Bit: Ellen ordering pizza. Initially kinda stupid, but amusing as Ellen asks lots of famous people if they're in for pizza. But then there actually is pizza and the sight of Brad Pitt handing out paper plates to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts was hilarious. Also, Ellen collecting a couple hundred from Harvey Weinstein and stealing Lupita Nyong'o's lip gloss.

Worst Moment: Kim Novak presenting animated short and feature. Was she supposed to sound so crazy? Was that part of the script? Or can she not read a telepromter or a room? Extra props to Matthew McConaughey, her co-presenter, for handling that so well. I felt like I was at work and watching him suavely handle a senile resident.

Celeb MVP: Kevin Spacey. Jumped on to every random Ellen bit, which could be rather try-hard, but seemed really casual and cool doing it. Also, came out to present talking in his "House of Cards" character's accent. Double cool points. He was just so comfortable everywhere he went and with everything he said. And awesome suit. (Actually, there were a lot of cool, different suits on the red carpet - the men were more interesting than the women, in my opinion.)

Biggest Shock: There were no shocks. No shocks. Everything went straight down the line from acting awards, to Gravity cleaning up the technical awards, to 12 Years a Slave taking Best Picture (Brad Pitt finally has an Oscar!). Maybe that Dallas Buyers Club makeup beat Bad Grandpa? But ever since that article where the makeup people talked about their literal $20 budget for makeup on Dallas Buyers Club, their chances seemed dramatically improved.

Overall:  Alfonso Cuaron sure seems like a swell guy, only a couple crazy presenters, at least the random montages had a theme ("Heroes") even if they were totally unnecessary. As usual, too long given that the speeches were short, and so many presenters flubbed words from the teleprompter (John Travolta the prime example, introducing singer Idina Menzel as "Adele Dazeem" which is now trending on Twitter). And big props to the graphics designers for the Oscars; really cool, inventive graphics for all the categories and nominees, especially the Best Picture titles.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: Oscar Miscalculations and Make-ups

I read something the other day about how almost all writing done about the Oscars - at least on the internet - is negative squabble about how and when they got it wrong. Totally fair point. And this post will do nothing to contradict that; in fact I've kind of written about this exact trend, the make-up Oscar, before. It's just a phenomenon that is already too prevalent in Oscar history to ignore. This list focuses solely on acting prizes, specifically Best Actor. I watched a TCM documentary about the history of the Oscars a couple weeks ago and there were two great quotes that I feel are relevant to this discussion: director/screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson (the man behind Field of Dreams, so obviously a hero) said (paraphrasing), "People say 'How could you give that to so and so over so and so?' Well, the answer is, we took a vote." Of course, people are fallible; the list of winners is just a microcosm of what the Academy liked best at the time. The other great quote was from Ellen Burstyn, talking about the year she won Best Actress for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, besting several tough competitiors (Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown). Burstyn states, "Gena Rowlands was really wonderful in that movie. She deserved an Oscar for that performance. Not my Oscar, but an Oscar." Sometimes that's just the way things go down - there are more than one actor who deserves the top prize. The only major category tie in history was in 1968 when Barbra Streisand and Katherine Hepburn both won Best Actress. All that said, here are the most glaring examples of how ignoring a great actor's best work leads down a very messy path.

1943: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
This could be a spectacular performance; I can't honestly say having never seen it. My only beef is that it seems wrong that Humphrey Bogart didn't take the Top acting prize for his most iconic role as Rick in Casablanca. Had he won here, there would have been less chance of his receiving a make-up Oscar from the Academy in 1951 for The African Queen.

1943: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
Ingrid Bergman wasn't nominated for Casablanca, but she was nominated the same year as Best Actress in For Whom the Bell Tolls, an equally great performance. But she was bested by young ingenue Jennifer Jones, leading to Bergman's make-up Oscar the following year...

1944: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Bergman is perfectly serviceable in Gaslight, playing a woman whose husband preys on her fragile and innocent mind to convince her she's crazy. But that's all she really has to play. The great shame is that Bergman's recompense comes at the cost of Barbara Stanwyck's dynamite performance in Double Indemnity. Though nominated 4 times in her career, Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar; she received an Honorary in 1982.

1948: Lawrence Olivier, Hamlet
Another year that could have belonged to Bogart, he played a complex, greedy, sometimes very unlikable character in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and despite it being one of Bogart's most memorable and praised roles, he wasn't even nominated. So Olivier won for his turgid portrayal of Hamlet (a great play, but in too reverential hands the lead character is extremely unsympathetic and whiny).

1951: Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
Had Bogart not been overlooked in years past, his Best Actor Oscar could have been for something more meaningful than this pandering adventure tale. The most notable fellow nominees that year were Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, both giving greater performances. Clift would never win a competitive Oscar and his A Place in the Sun antihero is one of his best roles. Brando's performance in Streetcar was game changing and popularized "the method" acting technique. However, Brando deservedly won in 1954 for On the Waterfront and in 1972 for The Godfather, so it's not like he really lost out in the long run.

1965: Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou
First of all, Lee Marvin's dual role in Cat Ballou isn't even the lead. That would be Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) seeking to avenge her father's death, with the help of a couple yokels (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickham) and a drunk former gunslinger (Lee Marvin). Marvin also plays the evil masked killer of Cat's father. As the bad guy, we never really get to see anything, the character is so shrouded and distant, and as the drunken gunfighter, Marvin is so over-the-top it's hard to take any aspect of the movie seriously. Marvin had a long and illustrious career in Westerns and War films, often playing the muscle or 2nd banana in such films as The Caine Mutiny, The Dirty Dozen, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Professionals, and The Big Red One. But his performance in Cat Ballou is preposterous and not even a leading performance. Losing to Marvin is the closest Richard Burton would ever come to winning a competitive Oscar; he was nominated the same year for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

1974: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
Aww, shucks, Art Carney is really sweet in Harry and Tonto, and in a less competitive year I would have no problem with the former "Honeymooners" comedian taking top honors. But 1974 was a pretty special year: Jack Nicholson was nominated for Chinatown, Al Pacino was nominated for The Godfather Part II, and Dustin Hoffman was nominated as foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny. Luckily when they made it up to Jack Nicholson the next year, he won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, possibly a more iconic performance than Chinatown. But for Pacino....well, take a look at 1992.

1986: Paul Newman, The Color of Money
The Academy gave Newman an Honorary Oscar the year before, but then he went and reprised his role from The Hustler in Scorcese's The Color of Money, and suddenly the Academy fell all over themselves to give him a competitive Oscar. In so doing they completely robbed Bob Hoskins who took the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Top Actor at Cannes and a variety of Top Critics awards for his leading role in Mona Lisa.

1992: Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman
The ultimate example of a make-up Oscar in practice. Pacino is undoubtedly a great actor whose enemy always seemed to be timing. His supporting nod for The Godfather was lost to Joel Grey in Cabaert, he lost to Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger the year of his Serpico, his lead in The Godfather Part II was lost to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto, and when up for Dog Day Afternoon he was overlooked in favor of another perpetual nominee, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. His series of nominated performances in the '80's and '90's all came to nothing, so in 1992 the Academy took it's chance and finally gave Pacino an Oscar for his rather hammy role in Scent of a Woman. Unfortunately, Denzel Washington gave the performance of his career, and the best performance of the year, in Malcolm X. Now Washington is owed a make-up Oscar, huh?

1995: Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite
Sorvino is charming in Woody Allen's 1995 film, but a rather one-note caricature. How exciting would it have been to see Kate Winslet actually win for her spunky, passionate Marianne in Sense and Sensibility? Or Joan Allen (in what was actually a leading actress role) as the beleaguered wife of Nixon? Or the always great Mare Winningham in Georgia? (People have largely forgotten about Winningham; today she's most remembered for playing Meredith Grey's doomed stepmother in "Grey's Anatomy," but she was always a top-notch actress.) Point being, there were better choices that year, and someday Joan Allen may be receiving a make-up Oscar as well. Winslet already got hers in 2008 for The Reader - although when you're talking about Winslet, the performances are almost always uniformly deserving.

2001: Denzel Washington, Training Day
Sure, Washington already had a Supporting Oscar for 1989's Glory, but the heir to the legacy of Sidney Poitier surely deserved his own Best Actor statuette. He was denied after great performances in 1992's Malcolm X and 1999's The Hurricane and the Academy wasn't going to let that happen again. So he won for playing against type as the thug of Training Day. I actually thought that Russell Crowe's best performance occurred in 2001 for A Beautiful Mind, but as he was already awarded the year before, it was easier to get Denzel the Best Actor Oscar he deserved. Tom Wilkinson also lost out for his subtle work in In the Bedroom.

2009: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Bullock's Oscar is not exactly a makeup, and I don't think any great harm was done by not giving it to Meryl Streep for Julie and Julia. But as lovable as Bullock is, The Blind Side is a trumped up Afternoon Special on Lifetime, and while her performance is strong, it's not Oscar-worthy. Had Bullock lost, the award would most likely have gone to Streep, and then the Academy wouldn't have felt the need to give it to her for The Iron Lady in 2011 (although Streep had won twice before, her last victory was in 1982: that's 27 years and a further 12 nominations out and Streep couldn't be left in the cold for too much longer, Katherine Hepburn won Best Actress 3 times in the latter half of her career," the Academy noted distressingly), and Viola Davis could have won for The Help. Also nominated in 2009 were Gabourey Sidibe for Precious, and Carey Mulligan giving a confident and layered performance in An Education. (Potential make-up Oscar situations now brewing for Davis, Mulligan and Sidibe.)

2009: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges is awesome and I love him and while his performance in Crazy Heart is typically good, it's nothing extraordinary. But the Academy started getting worried when they saw the Dude had turned 60 and had been passed over for Supporting Actor in '71, '74 and '00 for The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Contender, respectively, as well as losing Best Actor for Starman in 1984. And somehow it was deemed the year of Jeff Bridges. I thought George Clooney showed new depth in Up in the Air, but the real winner was Colin Firth's heartbreaking performance in A Single Man. Firth says so much with silence. He deserved it that year. Yes, Firth did win the following year for perhaps an equally great performance as the noble, stuttering King Bertie in The King's Speech, and I can't say it was undeserved. But if Firth had won the previous year, then Jesse Eisenberg would have had a much better shot of winning for The Social Network in 2010, an assured performance at least equal to Firth's. This one is not a travesty, but Bridges most definitely won a make-up Oscar in 2009.

As a final lead-up to Oscar day (!) I hope that was satisfying. If you prefer to focus on the positive, here's a list of my favorite Oscar dresses (though the list is 6 years old).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Figure Skating, "Pedorazzi" and More

  • Has anyone been following the recent "Pedorazzi" story? Basically, last month Dax Shepard and Kristin Bell announced that they would boycott all publications that print papparazzi photos of children. (Read the original announcement here.) Given the increasing interest in celebrity offsping (which seems to have taken off hardcore around 2005/2006 with the births of Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt) which has lead to instances of children being surrounded and shouted at by paparazzi looking for a money shot, not to mention the fact that these kids entire childhoods are being documented and published as entertainment for us, I fully support this policy. Though I admit it's pretty hard to abstain from all magazines that feature these photos, and even more so when the photos are only an internet click away. You'd think this policy would have garnered more support (about time someone tried to do something about this, right?) but the problem for many publications (read People Magazine's response here) is that a lot of celebrities arrange for paparazzi shots to be taken of their families during an awards campaign, to divert attention from a scandal or negative publicity, or even to establish themselves as "celebrity parent know-it-alls" (like Jessica Alba, who seems to be famous for little else these days). The question now asked, how to you take steps to protect celebrity children when many of their parents are more than happy to pimp them out when it suits their own needs. And that doesn't even address where the line is for children of celebrities who are launching their own careers - think Jaden Smith, or Cindy Crawford's modeling youngster. It's a complicated and interesting subject, and regardless where you stand, I appreciate that Shepard and Bell's stance has opened up the discussion further. Blame has to be placed not only on the photographers, but also on the Hollywood machine that enables this invasion, and we the consumers who don't protest. (The comments in that Pajiba link are really interesting as well.)

  • Post Olympics high; I didn't really watch a lot of competition, just the snippets I caught in between pill passes at work, so I didn't watch the figure skating competition live. But I heard great things about 19 year-old Jason Brown and tracked down video of his performance at the US Nationals last month. First of all, he is just freaking adorable. Secondly, while he can't do a quad yet (apparently this is really important) his jumps are beautiful and his lead-ins are full of movement - so unlike that long buildup to the jumps I associate with the Ladies competition. Is this a male thing, or a Jason Brown thing? Third, this kid is full of enthusiasm and he makes frequent eye contact with the audience, something I don't see often in the Ladies either. It always seems like they're looking to the heavens and not at actual people. Basically, the kid is a gem and I hope his career continues to inspire and prosper.

Jason Brown Free Skate, 2014 US Championships

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

11 Most Disappointing Best Picture Winners

This was supposed to be a Top 10 list, but I already cut 13 other contenders and I just couldn't choose between the final 11.

The Nominees: Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan.
Winner: Shakespeare in Love. As a Shakespeare fanatic, I actually adore this movie and it's audacious mix of bawdy humor and thwarted destiny. All-around amazing performances (even from much-maligned Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow; did Cate Blanchett deserve it more? Perhaps. But Paltrow was sweet and spirited in the role, really very good casting) and a top-notch script from playwright Tom Stoppard. But...
Should Have Won: Saving Private Ryan.  The crime is that this film beat Speilberg's masterpiece, perhaps the seminal war film of this generation. In retrospect, not the perfect film we thought it was at the time, but for that first 30 minutes alone, Ryan should have had it in the bag. Ebert praised it saying, "They have made a philosophical film about war almost entirely in terms of action." I wrote my junior year persuasive essay on the reasons Ryan should have taken the prize over Shakespeare and I have yet to falter in my resolve. No other film has ever gutted me quite like this, except for maybe Schindler's List, another Spielberg classic that was rightly awarded.
Should Have Been in the Mix: A Simple Plan or The Truman Show.

The Nominees: Alexander's Ragtime Band, The Citadel, Boys Town, You Can't Take it With You, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Le Grande Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Four Daughters and Test Pilot
Winner: You Can't Take It With You. Pretty cute movie based on a stage play; in fact my little sister played the lead in her senior year of high school. It's full of wacky characters and was directed by darling Frank Capra, but it lacks the umph of It Happened One Night or It's a Wonderful Life. In retrospect, a rather insignificant picture.
Should Have Won: The prize should have gone to the technicolor joy of Michael Cudlitz's The Adventures of Robin Hood starring a most dashing and irreverent Errol Flynn, or French master Jean Renior's influential Grand Illusion, and not one of the lesser Capra confections.
Should Have Been in the Mix: Actually, the list of nominees is pretty solid, though not as strong as '39 or '41. They just picked the wrong winner.

The Nominees: Around the World in 80 Days, The King and I, The Ten Commandments, Giant, and Friendly Persuasion.
Winner: Around the World in 80 Days. This was a terrible year all around. And this overblown, though beautiful, travelogue featuring stereotypes prancing about as if they were real characters is just too trifling to be deserving of even a nomination.
Should Have Won: Under duress, Giant. Mostly well-known as "James Dean's Last Film," but directed by the capable and respected George Stevens (better represented by other films such as A Place in the Sun, Swing Time, The Diary of Anne Frank and Shane). About the trials and tribulations of an oil tycoon, it also starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor . Good enough I guess, but this movie was a tremendous bore for me.
Should Have Been in the Mix: Lust for Life, John Ford/John Wayne classic The Searchers, Kubrick's debut The Killing, Lawrence Olivier's Richard III, and under known Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.

The Nominees: Crash, Munich, Brokeback MountainCapote, and Good Night and Good Luck.
Winner: Crash. A very interesting idea with some strong themes and a few good sequences, but as a film it has no business competing with the other nominees. It's point - the racism still exists in spades, even in a city as supposedly liberal as L.A. - is well-intentioned, but the handling is so clumsy and obvious.
Should Have Won: Brokeback Mountain or Good Night and Good Luck. Anything else. Obviously I was pulling for Ang Lee's quiet storm, Brokeback Mountain. It featured the performance of the year, as far as I'm concerned, and told such a simple story so truthfully and sadly. Beautiful score as well. And Good Night and Good Luck was tight and straightforward with a lot of great ensemble work and a story that is still relevant today. But 2005 was one of the great years for movies in general, so it's hard to get too bent out of shape, even if Brokeback will be hailed as the classic for years to come.
Should Have Been in the Mix: A History of Violence, Cinderella Man and Pride and Prejudice.

The Nominees: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, Suspicion, Sergeant York, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, and One Foot in Heaven.
Winner:How Green Was My Valley. Another film guilty of being only great in the face of game-changing awesomeness, How Green Was My Valley was a respectable film by much-acclaimed director John Ford, but a rather prosaic story about a mining family over several generations. It's a sweeping epic about good, hardworking people, and it didn't piss anyone off.
Should Have Won: That honor went to Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, a movie that pretty much invented (or at least perfected) almost all the film techniques we now take for granted. Too bad Welles based his film on newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart and embarrassed columnist Louella Parsons, a move that garnered a lot of negative press for the film and resulted in it being banned from all Hearst publications. But it is obviously the Best Picture of 1941. Also worthy that year: classic film noir The Maltese Falcon.
Should Have Been in the Mix: The Lady Eve (but overall a solid year, I just wish more people knew about this delightful Barbara Stanwyck comedy).

The Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge, A Beautiful Mind, and Gosford Park.
Winner: A Beautiful Mind. It features a great performance from Russell Crowe - and the last time he was nominated; after being snubbed in competitive years in 2003, 2005 & 2007, his hot streak seemed to peter out - and it's hard for me to begrudge Ron Howard, he seems like such a nice fellow.
Should Have Won: Moulin Rouge or Gosford Park. The former is an in-your-face, manically edited assault on the senses and the heart, and the later represents yet another tremendous ensemble from director Robert Altman, built around a murder at a shooting party in one of those posh, Upstairs/Downstairs houses. Think "Downton Abbey" meets Murder by Death, but infinitely more clever and admirable than either. I also would accept the brilliantly rendered and casted first installment of Lord of the Rings.
Should Have Been in the Mix: Mulholland Drive and The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Nominees: Our Town, The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, Foreign Correspondent, All This and Heaven Too, Rebecca, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, and The Philadelphia Story
Winner: Rebecca.  It seems in poor taste to bag on the only Alfred Hitchcock film to ever win Best Picture (not only that but Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Notorious and North by Northwest weren't even nominated!), and granted, Rebecca has some very creepy scenes in that cold, cruel house, including a menacing performance from Judith Anderson as the obsessed servant Mrs. Danvers. Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent was nominated this year as well, but neither really stacks up against some of the other nominees.
Should Have Won: The excellent line-up of Best Picture nominees for 1940 included The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin's divinely funny take-down of Hitler, The Grapes of Wrath - a classic John Ford picture with an iconic performance from Henry Fonda, and the frothy and sharply funny The Philadelphia Story, all more fitting choices.
Should Have Been in the Mix: His Girl Friday (though the list is an embarrassment of riches already).

The Nominees: Field of Dreams, Driving Miss Daisy, My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, and Born on the Fourth of July.
Winner: Driving Miss Daisy. Jessica Tandy won Best Actress - and good for her, the oldest competitive winner until Christpher Plummer in 2011, and Morgan Freeman plays her loyal driver and friend. But the movie presents a nostalgic look at the good ol' days when blacks were the help and respected and protected their employers more than deserved. A rather old-fashioned choice for 1989.
Should Have Won: My personal preference is for the nostalgic, hopeful and elegiac Field of Dreams, a film that is now etched in our collective consciousness forever. But I also wouldn't have minded Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone's damning crusade for Vietnam veterans and featuring the first really exciting performance of Tom Cruise's career. It was bold and fearless, an achievement for which Stone was awarded Best Director.
Should Have Been in the Mix: Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. (Also, The Little Mermaid :))

The Nominees: High Noon, Ivanhoe, The Greatest Show on Earth, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man.
Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth. A bunch of big Hollywood names (including James Stewart, Betty Hutton and Charlton Heston) dramatize the backstage antics of group of circus performers. Fun and colorful, sure. But so slight.
Should Have Won: High Noon. The ultimate story of the beleaguered hero standing up to evil all alone. Gary Cooper rightly won Best Actor for his performance, and the film is revered for its message about standing up for what is right in the face of personal harm.Told in real time (a bold choice for a Hollywood Western) it features the major film debut of Grace Kelly, a sharp script, a dazzling technical brilliance.
Should Have Been in the Mix: SINGIN' IN THE RAIN!!! For heaven's sake!

The Nominees: Romeo and Juliet, Oliver!, Rachel, Rachel, The Lion in Winter, and Funny Girl.
Winner: Oliver! The sad truth is that Oliver! just isn't very fun. The music is a slog to get through and I was bored and fast forwarding things less than halfway through the movie. And don't get me started on that exclamation point; I don't care if it's in the "original Broadway production" title - that exclamation point is a pretentious whore in it's preposterous attempts to glam up a fairly serious and bleak Charles Dickens novel!
Should Have Won: Romeo and Juliet or Funny Girl.  Yes, I love the Zefferelli version of Romeo and Juliet, my favorite film from 1991-1993. Vibrant and lush, great Mercutio and Tybalt, fantastic locations. And Funny Girl - and Barbra Streisand's dynamite comedienne performance - is a musical that actually earned an exclamation point!
Should Have Been in the Mix: Kubrick's Future Hall of Famer, 2001: A Space Odyssey (I'm not really the biggest fan, but I can't deny it's relevance, influence or invention in the film cannon).

The Nominees: Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Chocolate, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Winner: Gladiator. God, did I hate this movie during my freshman year of college. I thought it decent entertainment in the theaterbut after refreshing my palette with more creative and lively films, to see this formulaic, poorly CGI'd and dingy gladiator epic (anchored by an admittedly strong performance from Crowe and some great score from Hans Zimmer) take the grand prize was to say the least, a disappointment.
Should Have Won: Traffic or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. After being blown away by the audacious artistry and heartbreaking showmanship of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and then being further impressed, and warily worn down by the circular games and power ploys of Soderburg's Traffic, I knew where my loyalties lay. For some reason, this year sticks a craw in my gut like no other. How the Academy could have not recognized these highly superior films for the masterpieces they were will forever remain a mystery to me.
Should Have Been in the Mix: Wonder Boys, High Fidelity and Almost Famous.

Just missed the cut: Forrest Gump, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Chariots of Fire, and The Last Emperor.

(Damn the '70's were awesome!!!! Not a single entry from the 1970's on this list, because while the winner wasn't always my personal favorite, it's hard to find fault with such strong lists of nominees. Take a look at this list of films nominated between 1971 and 1977: The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Fiddler on the Roof, The Godfather, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Sting, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, The Godfather Pt2, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, Rocky, All the President's Men, Network, Bound for Glory, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Julia and Star Wars.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chris Pratt Coming into his Own

Literally 3 nights ago I was watching Moneyball and thinking how Chris Pratt has really been playing the Hollywood game smartly. He played to his fratboy-douchebag image in Wanted and 10 Years, slowly became one of the most beloved characters on "Parks and Recreation," took solid supporting roles in Oscar-nominated films 3 years running (Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, and Her) and topped it off by voicing the lead character in the box-office smash The Lego Movie.

And now the trailer for the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer has dropped, impressing us with Pratt-abs, and making us laugh with great comedic chops and the clever use of "Hooked on a Feeling." On top of that, Pratt is the lead in the upcoming Jurassic Park reboot scheduled for release next year.

But for me, Pratt will always be Bright Abbott, the doofy, big-hearted lunk from the erstwhile WB's "Everwood." He was charming, spotlight-stealing, and always provided the biggest laughs. Here's to you, Bright! Hope your movies don't suck!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

12 Actors Who Were Unable to Capitalize on an Academy Award Nomination

I usually think that an Academy Award nomination means an actor now has access to a larger variety of roles than previously available. It's an opportunity to vault oneself to the next level. Some actors are perennial nominees (think Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep) actors we know will be delivering strong work throughout their careers. This is not a list about those people. This is about smaller actors, many who have the ability to become big stars, who somehow let their chance slip away though a series of poor film choices. I have not included many foreign actor candidates because the prospect of a Hollywood film career would always be a stretch for an indie star of South America or Japan (we were never gonna be hearing much about Fernanda Montenegro, Adriana Barraza or Catelina Sandino Moreno again, at least not in the mainstream). There are also many candidates I didn't include because I think the Oscar nod gave them exactly the career they deserved. Take Thomas Haden Church: before his nod he was mostly known for playing a one-note character on an '80's sitcom. After his nod he has worked in a series of successful supporting parts of much higher quality than his previous career, and also more suited to his talents. This is just a sampling of the squandered opportunities out there. (And it should be noted, I do not always blame the actor for the loss of these opportunities. Sometimes, shit happens.)

Terrence Howard: Nominated for Best Actor in Hustle and Flow (2005)
An actor with so much promise, such great charisma and such presence, in the years immediately after his nomination (in the banner year of 2005) he took supporting roles in Four Brothers, Get Rich or Die Tryin', August Rush and Awake. He got a big break in 2008 as Tony Stark's best bud Colonel "Rhoady" Rhoads in Iron Man, a part he lost to Don Cheadle in the sequel due to contract and money disputes. Lately he's been seen in The Company You Keep, Prisoners, Lee Daniel's The Butler, and The Best Man Holiday, all respectable ensemble roles. But Howard has the ability to play in the big leagues with Denzel Washington and he is miles from that. The accusations in his personal life surely did him no favors either.

Kate Hudson: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Almost Famous (2000)
Hudson is most definitely a bonafide A-lister (or at least she was for 10 years after her nomination) but never again has she shown the kind of vulnerable determination of her Almost Famous role. She had a lot of high-profile gigs (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Raising Helen, The Skeleton Key, Bride Wars, You Me & Dupree) and has most recently been found shilling for television's "Glee." The last challenging part she took was in 2002's The Four Feathers, which didn't work out for anyone involved. In fact, looking at some of these movies, many of them commercial flops (Le Divorce, Something Borrowed, Alex and Emma) I'm amazed she stayed on the A-list as long as she did. Unfortunately we may never see anything as promising as Penny Lane from Hudson ever again.

Adrien Brody: Won Best Actor for The Pianist (2002)Post Oscar win, he had a decent run of box office success with The Village (however much maligned, it still pulled in $114 million) and King Kong, but his leading roles in The Jacket and Hollywoodland went largely unnoticed. He stepped out of the box with roles in indie fare like The Brothers Bloom and The Darjeerling Limited (a personal favorite), but wasn't really able to parlay his talent into any mainstream longevity. Between 2009 and 2013 he took part in a list of mostly forgettable films ranging from Wrecked to Splice and apart from a great cameo in Midnight in Paris, went largely unseen. Here's hoping this year's The Grand Budapest Hotel proves to be a more successful venture.

Rachel Weisz: Won Best Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener (2005)
Weisz had a varied career as a character actress before her win, and there were many high profile roles in the years after including the rebooted Bourne Legacy and Oz the Great and Powerful. She also continued to take interesting parts in smaller films such as The Brothers Bloom and the experimental adventure The Fountain, with then-fiancee Darren Aronofsky. But for an actress with the charm to pull of a daffy librarian in The Mummy, realistically sweep Hugh Grant off his feet in About a Boy and off course play the moral crusader in The Constant Gardener, not to mention being one of the most beautiful woman in the world, while not always playing to that - and well as being Mrs. Daniel Craig, I just think she deserves more than second banana roles in duds like The Lovely Bones and Dream House.

Mickey Rourke: Nominated for Best Actor in The Wrestler (2008)
This isn't really fair given the massive train wreck his career was before the nomination, but it hasn't seemed to open very many doors for him either. He was the villain in the worst Iron Man, the villain in the forgettable Immortals, and part of the male-fantasy abomination The Expendables. Everything else is straight direct-to-video D-list. He has a part in the much anticipated Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; he could use it. Almost wish he'd won that year instead of Sean Penn cause I very much doubt he will ever be nominated again.

Clive Owen: Nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Closer (2004)
Wasn't Clive Owen supposed to be our next leading man? He was in contention for the Bond franchise for Pete's sake! Post-nom he had a pretty good run including Sin City, Shoot Em' Up, Inside Man and one of the seminal films of the last 20 years, Children of Men. It was looking pretty good, even with an ambitious flop like Derailed or Duplicity thrown in. I remember there being a lot of pre-award buzz around his performance in The Boys Are Back in 2009, but the film must have had a small run in theaters because despite mostly decent reviews, I never heard anything else about it. And after that, the most buzz-worthy thing on Owen's resume has been the TV movie Hemingway and Gellhorn. Owen should be right up there on the A-list with Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt; his skills are in the same league.

Virginia Madsen: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Sideways (2004)
I think this is less a fault of Madsen's and more an indication of the lack of women's roles for actresses between 40 and 60. Madsen has had a long and productive career as a character actress, so perhaps a vault to Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock-level roles was always going to be a stretch. But just watch this beautifully acted scene from Sideways and tell me she doesn't deserve better than "the wife" roles in Firewall, The Astronaut Farmer, The Number 23 and Red Riding Hood.

Cuba Gooding Jr.: Won Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire (1996)
Whatever there is to say about the quality of roles picked, Gooding certainly did work, consistently, in the decade following his nomination. There were strong, but standard supporting roles in As Good As It Gets and What Dreams May Come; attempts at historical drama in critical bombs Men of Honor and Pearl Harbor; and then the descent into "anything for a paycheck" roles in everything from Snow Dogs and The Fighting Temptations, to Boat Trip and Daddy Day Camp. Maybe this was all we should ever have expected from Cuba Gooding Jr. and he has indeed made what success was available to him. But I would have liked to see him in another role that was full of life and joy again and not all this hammy shit.

Elisabeth Shue: Nominated for Best Actress in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Shue had a few high profile gigs in The Saint, Cousin Bette and Deconstructing Harry, but mostly a lot of horrible roles in horrible films like The Hollow Man, The Trigger Effect, Molly and Hide and Seek. In recent years, in between standard mom roles, she's managed to make fun of herself in Hamlet 2 and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but watch Leaving Las Vegas again and tell me she isn't worthy of so much more. We're talking the star of Adventures in Babysitting! Where's the respect?

Mira Sorvino: Won Best Supporting Actress for Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Apart from the sublimely brilliant Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, Sorvino's post-Oscar career careens from failed experiment Mimic (an early Guillermo Del Toro picture) to the nauseatingly bittersweet At First Sight. These may be the kinds of big-name roles she could expect, but the quality was sadly lacking. There has been nothing noteworthy in at least 10 years, and though her IMDb page is full of roles, I only recognize a handful.

Burt Reynolds: Nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Boogie Nights (1997)
Reynolds had been trudging through standard comedy fare, mostly trading on his former good looks, when Boogie Nights came along and showed a true thespian hiding behind the swarm and swagger. Unfortunately Reynolds turned right around and took every pitiful paycheck role in sight, eventually stooping to self-parody in The Crew and The Dukes of Hazzard. Nowadays he pops up in cameos on every Fox animated television show.

Minnie Driver: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Good Will Hunting (1997)
Part of Driver's appeal was the very cool part she was given to play in Good Will Hunting. Skylar was witty and confident, but heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable, with the kind of "one of the guys" cool we all wish we could pull off. And Driver had the goods before that as well - check her out in the little know Circle of Friends with a charming Irish accent and 30 lb. weight gain, or as the - again - very cool object of John Cusack's affection in Grosse Point Blank. She eventually took a few good roles in films like Return to Me and the television series "The Riches," but has been mostly slumming it in unsatisfactory supporting roles in everything from Ella Enchanted to Conviction. Her latest venture is the Fiona role in the television remake of About a Boy; it looks atrocious.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Dance Between Friends



I know a lot of people thought Harry and Hermione were going to kiss in this scene, and I suppose that is a fair interpretation. But this scene never felt sexual to me at all. What has often gotten lost in the Harry Potter fandom - at least the movie fandom - is that Hermione and Harry are best friends. Ron is his best mate, but Hermione is his best friend. And this scene felt like the most natural thing in the world for Harry to want to do. They are both sad and disheartened, missing Ron, and he tries to cheer them both up with a funny little dance. The way he looks at her is so grownup, like he has taken all of the lessons and heartache over the previous six years and he knows that life is going to continue being hard - that is a fact of life for Harry Potter - but they can make the best of it, have this one light moment where they get to be the eighteen year-olds they actually are and not the saviors of the world. It helps that the song is Nick Cave's "O' Children," a beautifully melancholic, but also hopeful song with something of gospel in it.

And even more than the brief moment of levity, I love how quickly it ends, that reality comes back too soon. Ron is still gone, they still don't have the answers they need, and a little dancing won't change that. That too felt so grownup - so sad for them that their innocence is over and they can't ignore or put off the real world any longer. They are now part of it; they are adults. That realization is crushing, not only for these characters, but for those of us in the audience who have watched them grow up, who have watched this fun little kid series become something to be taken seriously, something that will break your heart. In eight wonderful films, this is my absolute favorite moment. Not quidditch, or the end of Voldemort, or Ron and Hermione's kiss or even the most delightful smile of young Daniel Radcliffe getting to become a wizard. This is the moment that made it all real for me.

Friday, January 31, 2014

5 Things That Made Me Happy This Week

5.) Jesse Eisenburg Cast as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman: I'm sure plenty of people will be incensed by this news, but I'm a big fan of Eisenburg's style. I love him in both Adventureland and Zombieland, and ardently admired his skill at playing an insecure, yet cocky smartass with the ability to command a room in The Social Network (so much so that I was almost rooting for him to best my beloved Colin Firth for Best Actor). I think he has the capability to play a great villain, but obviously his looks and other aspects of his demeanor will make this a Lex we haven't seen before. I'm excited to see how that turns out. This is the first piece of casting news about the Man of Steel sequel that actually makes me look forward to seeing it.

4.) The Academy Awards do not air until March 2nd: Technically this is pretty close to the regular Oscar schedule - it's usually the last Sunday of February. But with the Golden Globes, Grammys and Screen Actor's Guild awards already behind us (as well as the Directors and Producers Guilds and Critic's Choice) it felt like awards season was moving at warp speed. These developments do make for a tediously long awards season, but on the other hand, I still have an entire month to catch up on nominees and makes lists about Oscar snubs, and that just tickles me pink.

3.) The Fault in Our Stars trailer arrived this week, promising tears for all: I have never read the John Green book on which the film is based, but fans cannot stop telling everyone that it will rip your heart out - I look forward to the challenge. It stars Shailene Woodley, who is so fresh and beautiful I think I'd follow her anywhere. May even need to read this book (Green's "Looking to Alaska" is also fervently recommended).

2.) Sherlock episode "The Sign of Three" was so, so good: The long awaited marriage of John Watson to Mary Morton was everything we hoped it would be and more, except for a really solid mystery. But that doesn't bother me much when you have Sherlock giving by turns the most awful/awesome best man toast in history, John and Sherlock actually hugging!, Sherlock folding napkins in a style he learned on youtube, a stag night where a very drunk Watson and Sherlock try to solve a case smashed, and a heartbreaking violin solo/last scene. This episode punched me in the feels. I'm going to start my second re-watch now.

1.) Hot Fuzz has delightful nods to Baz Luhrman's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg must have a direct line to my adolescence because not only does the Amateur Dramatic Society in this film perform Romeo and Juliet via Baz Luhrman's insane production (complete with knight and angel costumes in the final death scene, and energetic musical number "Lovefool" to close the show) but later Dire Straits classic song "Romeo and Juliet" (which I know best from its appearances in Can't Hardly Wait and Empire Records) was playing in a car radio when the cops find the bodies of the decapitated actors from the play. (If any of this doesn't make sense, just go rent Hot Fuzz - well worth it.)  These nods aren't exactly subtle so I can't take any credit, but they did produce a very satisfying guffaw.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Feeling a little lazy and can't get enough of lists. Enjoy.

Also - the Lego movie trailer! I had avoided all media about this movie with abject disapproval, but the trailer was forced on me before Frozen and it actually looks pretty hilarious. It will probably disappoint in real life, but Will Arnett's Batman impression is amazeballs!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The SAG Awards: At least the fashion was unpredictable

After being genuinely surprised by the results of many Globes races, the SAGs were a sad retread. Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConahey, and Jared Leto seem like sure locks in their respective categories, while Supporting Actress is a toss up between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o, with their films duking it out for Best Picture. American Hustle edged out 12 Years a Slave for the ensemble award, but that seems mainly due to the star power. I mean, The Help beat out The Artist, The Descendents and Midnight in Paris, but no one really expected it to win picture. I have the same feeling here, though I may be proven wrong.

Does anyone else think it's really lame that the SAG's don't have a supprting actor or actress category for televison? That is the sole reason Maggie Smith stole an award from Claire Danes, Kerry Washington, Anna Gunn and Jessica Lange. I love her on "Downton Abbey" as much as anyone else, but that is a supporting performance. You would think that the acting faction of Hollywood would be more eager to award supporing performances, as character actors make up such a large percentage of the acting community. (And then maybe Josh Charles would have a shot - seriously!) Complete list of winners and losers here.

All that's really left for me to comment on is the fashion. I realize my blog is not primarily fashion-minded, but I put that on hold during Oscar season. Sorry. Here's the pretty:


Amy Adams: love this color, those earrings and her hair.

Honorable Mention: Because there were some truly great dresses out there tonight. Particularly Julie Bowen. Anna Gunn, Lupita Nyong'o, Cate Blanchett, and Jane Krakowski were also stellar.


Edie Falco: Because on top of being ugly, the fit is terrible. At least Kerry Washinton and Rose Leslie were trying for something new. And theirs fit.


Amanda Peet: truly heinous. And capping off a particularly bad year of fashion. Really.


Julia Roberts: it's a freaking pepto jumpsuit! But her hair is great and I actually love this color



Jennifer Lawrence: Dior finally put her in a truly complementary dress. Thank God.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Because I Still Have Access to a Video Store

WORLD WAR Z (2013): I know absolutely nothing about the Max Brooks novel upon which this film is based so I can't judge whether the film lives up to those expectations or not. As a zombie movie, it seems much more in the vein of Contagion rather than Dawn of the Dead, which pleases me. As much as I love the current trend of "fast zombies" and all the attendant gore and horror, I found the idea of a worldwide government being stumped by an epidemic, and powerless to stop its spread, the most horrifying movie experience I had ever had in Soderburg's Contagion. World War Z follows this line, as the scattered remains of the global network scramble to identify the origin of this plague. The focus on the tactical struggles, the way information leaked to allow some countries advance notice of this "plague," the idea that an investigator for the U.N. is the world's best hope - these are more relatable plot lines for me than extended focus on the individual zombies and the damage they cause. The film has some extraordinary sequences that struck me as unique ways to present this situation (although I'm sure they are not). There is a family that shelters our hero (Brad Pitt) and his family early on, and their decisions and the subsequent fallout were tensely and humanely handled, as was the moment where Pitt momentarily fears he has been contaminated. Also noteworthy are a shocking and unexpected death, and the way our hero handles an Israeli soldier being bitten. I also give the film kudos for a more subdued and cerebral conclusion, which while lacking in action, is full of suspense. The film ends on a rather unsatisfactory note because this problem and the only logical way to solve it will not fit into a film's time limits. This story would make an excellent mini or television series. I hope at some point we are able to see that vision.

STOKER (2013): I rented this last week and I was not disappointed. While I originally thought the film was heading in a different direction, what I ultimatly got was undoubtedly original and disturbing. India (Mia Wasikowsa) is a friendless teenager living in a large, gothic house with her parents. When her father unexpectedly dies, her fragile mother (Nicole Kidman) is comforted by the arrival of her husband's younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), an unnerving rascal with an intense interest in India. What follows is a rare coming of age story that resolutely refuses to be predictable. And for those collectors of random facts, the screenplay was written by "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller - yes, that one. Matthew Goode is always best when playing underhanded characters. His good looks and natural charm would seem to make him a strong candidate for leading man, but they work much more effectively when you know his mind is warped. Mia Wasikowsa has been a critical darling for years now, mostly for a stellar turn on HBO's "In Treatment" and solid support in The Kids Are All Right. I hadn't really been blown away by anything I'd seen until this. India is an observer and Wasikowsa's best moments take place in silence, when her eyes register something horrifying or titillating that only her ever working mind can grasp. As criticism of Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn noted that Streep always looked as though the wheels were turning in her head, "Click, click, click..." but I've never grasped why that is a bad thing. I like it when I can see a character processing information, planning their next more, thinking for God's sake. And Mia Wasikowsa "clicks" in spades. She also completely surrenders to the emotional side of her character in two very strong, if somewhat distressing, scenes: that unpleasant shower recollection, and her impromptu piano duet. The use of color in the film is astonishing; usually a film that employs such bright colors (all those blues and greens, even the earthy reds) feels happier, even safer (see: Amelie). In Stoker, director Chan-wook Park uses the lusciousness of these colors to imply a kind of rotting fecundity - a fertile place for India's darkest elements to take hold. And his choice of blocking, camera angles and often a lack of sound assist in creating an atmosphere of repression, isolation and foul desire.



JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME (2011): Perfectly serviceable, if somewhat slight film. It's nice to see Jason Segel continue to expand his repertoire beyond manic nice boys, although his Jeff is still a man-child. But this man-child thinks Signs is the greatest film ever, so I can't really find too much fault there. Jeff is a slacker, with no apparent trauma in his recent background, but living a stilted adulthood in his parents basement. He is obsessed with fate and following the signs, and so waits for cues before he acts - in this case a wrong number calling for "Kevin" influences his ride on the bus, and other events in his day, including a run-in with his estranged brother Pat (Ed Helms), a tool suffering marriage problems whose solution is to buy a Porsche. Ed Helms is such a likable presence in real life, but in roles he is so forced and obtuse, you just want to smack him over the head. And Susan Sarandon, as the boy's mother, feels somehow shoehorned into the story (sharing only one real scene with the main characters) and yet has the more interesting and unique storyline involving a secret admirer sending her instant messages at work. By the end of the film, rather than depict Jeff learning that he needs to grow up and stop smoking pot in his mom's basement while waiting for the meaning of life to happen upon him, the plot somehow supports his unrealistic expectations. For those who believe in "signs" and the idea that the universe has a grand plan waiting for them, I guess this ending will be satisfying. Even I was unable to suppress a hopeful smile. But it seems too easy a fix for life to say that a belief in fate should be what drives you. I guess I hold more with the Angel-Stripper in Can't Hardly Wait who says that "Fate. It does exist. But it only takes you so far and then it's up to you to make it happen." Jeff does make it happen. But did he really learn anything? Or will he continue to wait for wrong number phone calls to give him an idea of who he should follow today?

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013): There's nothing really wrong with Monsters University. But there are no moments of transcendent wonder either. Carl and Ellie do not have a lifetime of mundanely happy adventures, WALL-E does not take a magical ride through the Milky Way, Dash does not laugh exuberantly while running on water. And I suppose that's okay. Not all films need to transport us out of the ordinary. I appreciate that the sequel focuses on Mike Wackowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and his great, big, scare-loving heart, and less on the formerly more shallow Sulley (voiced by John Goodman). That seems fair after Sulley got the far more rewarding arc with Boo in Monsters Inc. I enjoyed this movie, and I suspect all the families and parents and children who saw it enjoyed it as well. The college setting allows for a lot of jokes that only adults will understand and empathize with, but that won't stop the kiddies from laughing along, and they scored the great Helen Mirren to voice the formidable Dean of the Scare Program. But apart from the originality of the animation and the fact that these characters are already beloved, there is nothing to set this movie apart from any 80's/90's underdog movie. Nothing wrong with that, but we all know Pixar is capable of so much more and it would really make me sad if they started settling for sequels to everything. We appreciate your original ideas folks! Keep 'em coming!

NOBODY WALKS (2012): For a film with so many actors I have real fondness for (John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, Rosemarie DeWitt) this movie left me a little cold. We follow a young artist/filmmaker Martine (Thirlby) who was invited to L.A. for help from a sound effects/sound editing master (Krasinski) by his therapist wife (DeWitt) who has ties to the Martine's circle of friends. I really enjoy the process of filmmaking - from casting to the camera choices, the costuming and sets to the editing choices - so it is fun for me to get a feel for how the sound in a film is created and layered. I will have more respect for whomever wins Best Sound at the Oscars this year, that's for sure. But when it comes to characterization, I'm a little at a loss. Krasinski's character seems perfectly content and even happy in his marriage to DeWitt, but two days of making sounds with Martine and he's ready to throw it all away for some misplaced sexual attraction. Actually, it felt a lot like that Season 2 arc of Downton Abbey where Lord Grantham almost has an affair with a housemaid because she makes him feel worthwhile, gives him something to do when he feels impotent about his forced lack of involvement in the war. Kransinski's character is apparently caught up in Martine's enthusiasm and it makes him appreciate and be excited by his job again. It still feels like that came out of nowhere. And what makes it more irritating is that every other male in the film is instantly attracted to Martine as well. She has some kind of magical vagina, and despite Thirlby being cute as a button, there is no reasonable explanation for her irresistibility. The character is just not engaging enough to warrant this onslaught. Especially when you have sexy force of nature DeWitt being shunted to the side, and young actress India Ennega as Kolt, DeWitt's thoughtful and uncertain daughter, whose every scene is far more interesting than any other in the film (I wish the movie was about either of these characters instead).